Cathal Coughlan Remembered
"A Man out of Time"
by Brian F. Cousins
Cathal Coughlan's 40-year-plus career started in 1980 with the Kaught at the Kampus live E.P. documenting the nascent Cork, Ireland post-punk scene and finished in 2022 with a series of albums released as collaborations with producer Jackknife Lee under the moniker Telefis. Still, Coughlan is best-known for is work in Microdisney, the seminal 80's band championed by John Peel and nurtured at Geoff Travis's Rough Trade Records.
Sadly in 2022, Coughlan died at age 61 after a long illness. Throughout his multi-decade year career, the overriding influence on his music was American singer Scott Walker and the Chanson tradition of lyric-driven songwriting. In fact, ironically, as Scott Walker moved into a fundamentally avant-garde direction, Coughlan seem to take over Walker's former position as a subversive crooner. In the mid-90's, Coughlan started to record a series of albums that were very similar in style to those of Walker's work from the late '60's. At that time, Walker, by attempting to escape from his pop star/sex symbol status, had moved in a direction that incorporated chamber music, the American songbook and Brechtian cabaret to put distance between himself and his old audience. In this way, he hoped to protect himself from the from the pressures of stardom and when Coughlan adopted a similar approach in the mid-'90's, it appeared to be an attempt to find a safe space and to put distance between himself and the record Industry as he had been by this time badly burned twice- first with Microdisney and secondly with the demise of Fatima Mansions.
In fact, Coughlan was legally prevented from releasing music for much of the '90's and his first solo album, Grand Necropolitian from '96 is only now generally available. He emerged in 2000 back on independent label Kitchenware with a career highlight in Black River Falls. This album, released under his own name, re-established him with one of his strongest collections of songs that focused on the strengths of his voice. The album revealed a maturity that only been hinted at in the '80's and '90's. He started the new century very much a man out of time but deliberately so, as he seemed more comfortable with this lyric-driven musical form and identity. A second album in 2002, The Sky's Awful Blue, very much in the same vein, gave him cover and allowed him to develop his own musical styling and vocal variations while turning a blind eye to advances in music and world events.
He was able to fashion an identity as an eccentric living in a country like the UK that accepted and celebrated eccentricity. The irony of this situation was probable not lost on him. He was in most aspects an Irishman that railed against the injustices and distrust that many Irish received in England and at the same time, he was an artist that needed the space and tolerance provided by dear old Blighty which he would never have found had he returned to Ireland.
With Microdisney in the '80's to Telefis in 2022, his concerns were almost exclusively Irish- his lyrical interests Irish, his stimulation and his provocation Irish, his source of annoyance, things Irish, his sense of humor Irish. He psychologically never really left Ireland. And he was forever fighting Irish battles, winning Irish victories while all the time remaining in his adopted homeland. He clearly felt more comfortable in a pseudo-exile among the "enemy" and this unease must have motivated him.
When Microdisney moved from Cork to London in the early '80's Coughlan embodied all the negative stereotypes of the recent Irish immigrant. Financially insecure, making a virtue out of drunken loutish behavior, he appeared hopeful of being perceived as a latter-day Dylan Thomas intent on squandering his considerable artistic talents. And what considerable talent he had available to squander.
From interviews throughout his career, it is clear that he was blessed with a keen intelligence, coupled with both a lyrical grace and fine melodic skill, all tempered by a majestic voice that was his instrument. John Peel was quoted as saying that he could happily listen to Coughlan "singing from the phone book." So much so that Coughlan recorded a total of eight Peel sessions in various guises, one of the highest number from any artist.
Microdisney remain for many people that came of age in the '80's a defining voice. The early recording are the soundtrack to thousands of lonely lives lived in frigid bedsits (studios) under endless grey rainy skies. "This Liberal Love," "Dolly," "Hello Rascals," "Sun" and "Everyone is Dead" with their fragile and skeletal structure are the sound of innocence being corrupted by a world that won't accommodate its needs.
The aptly named In the World E.P. and the brilliant The Clock Comes Down the Stairs LP are the sound of relationships gone wrong, promises broken, mortality viewed and human frailty revealed. Innocence is learning that it can't survive on charm alone and that the world demands more than it is prepared to give. Recorded on a shoestring budget, Microdisney's defining statement still sounds unworldly, untethered and like no other album ever recorded. "Loftholdingwood", "Are you Happy" and the album closer "And" have an existential chill that cuts to the marrow.
After Microdisney's collapse following two commercial and overall enduring albums on Virgin Records, Coughlan moved swiftly forward, forming The Fatima Mansions, named ironically after one of Dublin's worst drug infested slums. Focusing on his personal demons and political observations, the music was more muscular and robust and Coughlan entered the '90's with a combative swagger.
Freed from commercial concerns, the music and songwriting was organic, inspired and uninhibited. Ranged from searing political rants like "Blues for Ceaucescu" to tender ballads such as "Wilderness on Time," it seemed as if nothing could really stop Coughlan, with the possible exception of himself. Against Nature (their 1989 debut) and Viva Dead Ponies (1990) were deft surreal works, hailed by many as one of the best Irish albums ever and 1991's Bertie's Brochures is uniformly excellent.
Somehow, Coughlan became more and more influenced by the Industrial and Techno sound of the '90's and moved his band in that direction. However, unlike Ministry and Nine Inch Nails, he failed to realize that this music was all theatrical in nature and that the audience understood it as such. There was something too literal about Fatima Mansions move into this world, plus their production values were thin compared to the sonic wizardry of these other artists. Later-stage Fatima Mansions may have been conceived as a critique of toxic masculinity but it soon descended into a pale imitation of same. Coupled with Coughlan's genuine anger and rage, the final two albums lacked balance and were a little disconcerting for all the wrong reasons. If the '90's were the decade where rock got louder and louder, ending with the debacle of Woodstock '99, then Valhalla Avenue (1992) and Lost in the Former West (1994) sadly seem part of this decent.
It had to end and it seemed to have ended badly with Coughlan in legal jeopardy, with little financial stability and too many bridges burned. The John Peel sessions had long since ended and phone book singing (as Peel would have it) were thing of the past.
His first solo album, strangely called The Grand Necropolitan (1996), introduces a death-like creature that haunted his work from this point on. Many definitions exist in the fantasy/occult/goth world of the album's title character but one that stands out is "Necropolitans are humanoids who renounce life and embrace undeath in a special ritual called the Ritual of Crucimigration (i.e. death by ritual crucifixion)." While this may not be the literal definition that Coughlan had in mind, it does point the listener in the general direction.
Upon listening to his new work of baroque chamber pop, recorded with little or no conventional rock instrumentation, the listener is confronted with the new world Coughlan had created. Drug addiction and alcoholism, religious bigotry, random violence, human trafficking, sexual cruelty and debasement co-exist with tender and heartfelt yearning in a never-ending surreal nightmare world of judgement and retribution. It's a strange world indeed.
Coughlan reflected on his basic outlook in an interview from '93."There's not much excitement to be had, acquiescing, partaking in what's going on around you when you don't agree with it. And I seem to have been, my whole life, since I was 14 or something, disagreeing with what was going on around me first in this country (Ireland) and then in Britain and that influenced the more abusive things that I've committed to vinyl. But I don't think that this makes me a bitter person, I don't think, because I can see the logic in the things that have happened around me." (source: " Electric Ballroom 1993"; a fan shared download called "Officer Material")There are moment of real tenderness and beauty such as "N.C." but the occasional near-perfect pop songs like "Amused as Hell" are rendered only suitable for a mature audience by dint of their crude lyrics. Unlike Michael Gira of Swans who completely embodies the anguish and brutal world he describes or Nick Cave, who is the master of captivating an audience with a great yarn, Coughlan seems to want to remain faithful to the Chanson world with conventional musical structures and vocalization that really are at odds with the subject matter. It's a bizarre and unique world that he created much for his own satisfaction and one that was only embraced by some of the deadhead fans of his former bands.
Coughlan did shake thing up along the way with collaborations with Irish comedian Sean Hughes with two albums that parodied '90's dance music and also a collaboration with Luke Haines (of Auteurs fame) in 2012 with The North Sea Scrolls. These outings lifted the mood a little and embraced a surreal and absurd worldview.
For over 20 years, he recorded the occasional album which seemed to satisfy his artistic yearning and he by all accounts, he simply focused on other aspects of his life, settling in Newcastle, marrying and building a successful career as a web-designer at the BBC.
With the temporary-reformed Microdisney playing a series of celebratory gigs in 2018, there was a sense of renewal and momentum. Former musical partner Sean O'Hagen had worked extensively with Stereolab and lead his own band the High Llamas for many years. There were hopes that Microdisney's reunion might become permanent. However, both musicians set to work on recording solo albums with each guesting on the other's. O'Hagen's 2019 Radum Calls, Radum Calls features three songs co-written with Coughlan on vocals. O' Hagen in turn plays on Coughlan's Song of Co-Alkan collection from 2021.
Co-Alkan served a reminder of former glories and is almost a Microdisney homecoming, sounding like it was recorded in the '80's, which if that was the intention, makes it all the more successful. Coughlan seems to be more relaxed than he had been in years and was playing to his strengths. The twelve song collection is a joy for old fans and is something of a victory lap for Coughlan and reestablished his connection to a more conventional rock sound.
However, not the be pigeon-holed, Coughlan next move was to collaborate with producer Jackknife Lee and produce some of the most musically sophisticated music of his career. A first Telefis (hAon) album appeared in early '22 featuring house music flourishes and deft dance touches, which gave his lyrics and vocals a new background to work with. The overall effect was invigorating and suggested that he was embarking on a whole new adventure.
And then there was the tragic news of this death on May 18th last year. Apparently suffering from pancreatic cancer for some time, he had thrown himself into work and wanted to be productive until the very end. Life and chance seemed to be as unforgiving as he had always feared. And second Telefis (A Do) album was released posthumously with dance rhythms more prominent and a more fuller sound. A host of artists guested on the album- A Certain Ratio, Will Sergent (from Echo and the Bunnymen) Jan Wobble and Sean O' Hagen in a fitting farewell. Jackknife Lee's music and production opens up so many possibilities and suggests the numerous directions that might have been taken in the future. This tragic end to the life of a true artist is so reminiscent of David Bowie's Blackstar and Leonard Cohen's You Want it Darker, career highlights from great talents that remained focused and vital in the face of death.
Taken as a whole, the body of music and song that Coughlan produced stands as testament to a unique and singular talent. Coughlan was often at his best with minimal accompaniment simply serving the song and allowing his voice to soar. Live recordings from Cleer's in Kilkenny and Sugar Club in Dublin, both from 2019 allow brilliant songs like "Officer Material" 'Bertie's Brochures" and "Singer's Hampstead Home" and others to shine and Coughlan's emotional presence is undeniable.
What remains is a huge body of work and a commitment to his art that was unwavering. He remains one of the most celebrated Irish artists that while never achieving the mass recognition that his work deserved but nevertheless will be remembered fondly by those people touched by his unique vision and talent.
See more of Coughlan's work on YouTube:
Also see our Microdisney article
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and check out his store in Industry City, Brooklyn where he features excellent vinyl also.